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Turning to Pop Culture in a Time of Trauma

<!>"Science fiction came true this week." That remark wasn't made by some professional reader of the culture's tea leaves, but by George Robertson, the secretary general of NATO. When a globalist commander falls back on a genre to describe reality, you know the triumph of entertainment is complete.

It used to be the Bible that got quoted in moments of enormity—and to some extent it still is, as all the prayer vigils held last week attest. But these days even the Almighty bows before pop culture's clout. In an unfathomable event, we turn to entertainment, and from the inventory of its words and images, we assemble meaning.

So it's understandable that the first response to what happened last week was to seek the shelter of a show. Many people who went through this trauma felt like they were in a movie, and those who saw it from a safe distance could imagine they were having the ultimate IMAX experience. Of course, we knew otherwise. As George Pataki put it with typical profundity, "It wasn't some grade-B movie. It was life." But some horrified part of us wanted to crawl back into the cocoon of plush seats and popcorn.

It was so surreal and so iconic—the planes, the flames, the giant black cauliflower cloud all seemed like something codirected by Alfred Hitchcock and Francis Ford Coppola. Even the rescue operation, observed up close (courtesy of a press pass), looked like a giant movie set complete with countless cameras panning the scene. But what film was being shot?


Godzilla. That was the first thing that came to mind when the towers tumbled down. I flashed on that failed remake, featuring the world's favorite monster running wild through Hollywood's favorite target: Lower Manhattan. There are scenes from Godzillathat virtually replicate the events of last week, images of crowds running through narrow canyons pursued by billowing smoke as something crashes through the buildings around them. But there are so many movies that turn on the destruction of this city. Think of Armageddonand Independence Day, to mention two recent films in which the skyscrapers of New York are trashed. The Bela Lugosi mad-scientist fantasy of reducing towers of power to "flaming roo-eens" is irresistible. Indeed, it's possible that the World Trade Center plot was hatched in the part of the imagination where real-life rage meets the imagery from dozens of films in which the spires that signify modernity crumble like so many sheets of tinfoil.

Return to the '50s, the golden age of paranoid sci-fi, and you can see this fantasy in countless drive-in epics with titles like 1,000 Years From Now.Those postwar cautionary tales did not always feature the customary creature-feature ending, in which the monster succumbs to American ingenuity. George Bush's recent rhetoric about "ending" states that harbor terrorists harks back to films where force fells the beast, but pop culture sends a more complicated message. Over the past 50 years, we've moved from cockeyed confidence to an eerie premonition of vulnerability. The spirit of When Worlds Collide(the 1951 sci-fi spectacle that depicts a flooded Times Square) informs more recent films like Escape From New York, which imagines a time when the city is uninhabitable by decent folks. The 1998 Godzilla ends with an image of baby 'zillas hatching in the bowels of a demolished Madison Square Garden—a specter fit for the age of AIDS, when our faith in magic bullets has been shattered.

But none of these movies fit the crisis last week, when a new and unimaginable threat loomed literally on the horizon. The unreal feeling may have prompted associations with sci-fi, but this genre faded from the mind as reality sank in. For one thing, death in most sci-fi films is zap-quick and impersonal (the most common final word is "ah-yeeee!"). But too many of us still wake up seeing bodies falling through the air, and we walk past heartbreaking placards with pictures of the missing. Godzillacan't help us make sense of this ongoing nightmare.

But the palpability of death is not the only reason the days after the blast took us further and further from the monster-movie genre. Sci-fi is classically a liberal form, in which blame for what befalls us resides in ourselves: in nuclear madness or the wages of pollution. Same with disaster movies like The Towering Infernoor Titanic. The implication in both films is that the hubris of building big leads to catastrophe. Even when the killer is some utterly cosmic event (such as the sudden descent of an asteroid), there's no sense in most disaster films of deliberate evil raining death out of a clear blue sky.

An exception to this rule like Independence Daymight suit the moment—and indeed, this movie's imagery of genocidal aliens blowing up the landmarks of Washington and New York seems even more credible now that it no longer requires computer simulation. The film's premise—that we live in a dangerous universe—couldn't be more relevant now. But there's a big problem with this paean to American valor: The villains are creatures from the beyond. Exoskeletal Bin Ladens just won't do. If we're to justify the "monumental struggle of good versus evil" that our president says is imminent, we need images of irredeemable people doing demonic deeds.

To locate that scenario in pop culture, we would have to forage from another genre, one that could make sense of our journey from sci-to semper fi.


We might have found the perfect match for our mood in Collateral Damage, the new Arnold Schwarzenegger film. Its plot—a firefighter enters the "complex and dangerous world of international terrorism" after his family is killed in a bomb blast—couldn't be more timely. But its release has been postponed. Hollywood is convinced the public wants wholesome entertainment now. Maybe so, but by the Thanksgiving movie rush we'll be eager for diversions that help us rationalize the collateral damage we're gunning up to inflict on a remote population. We're ready for Mortal Kombat in Kabul.

There may be no need for new product. Prozac for the spirit of revenge already exists in films like Black Sunday (1977), in which a terrorist menaces the Super Bowl. Movies like this are right up the tabloid alley, their action tailor-made for a moment when columnists like the Post's Steve Dunleavy scream, "Simply kill these bastards. . . . The time has come!" People like him have been living in a melodrama of terror since their first jolt of testosterone. Now, theirtime has come.

But there are big problems with terrorist sagas as we know them. For one thing, the villains usually aren't Arabs, and for another, they're portrayed as political criminals rather than agents of a death-dealing state. What we needed was a model for war, not a heroic police action, and there's no genre set in the recent past or the far future that fits this bill. Vietnam films won't do: They're all about the hardship and absurdity of combat. Iraq was vanquished so easily that Saddam has ended up as a comic foil in teen dating films.

These terrorists, on the other hand, are the hyper-real thing. Their invisibility is even more maddening than the physical threat they pose. Americans can tolerate a lot of things, but ambiguity isn't one of them. We need to see the enemy as definite, yet the essence of this situation is that it's a struggle against shadows. To make sense, this "war of the future," as Bush has called it, requires some touchstone from the past. So, as the smoke rose over Manhattan, we reached back to the last time we faced an evil empire in attack mode. We found the ideal metaphor for the twin towers assault in Pearl Harbor.

Though there are crucial differences between these two atrocities—one the clear act of a militarized state, the other a criminal assault by persons or powers unknown—they pale before the psychic benefits of putting both events together. This fusion was even easier to achieve because we could still remember the digitalized reenactment of Pearl Harbor from last summer at the cineplex. Though that movie bombed (as it were), it generated tremendous media attention to the actual event. Pearl Harbor now resonates with the need to convince ourselves that the current crisis has a precedent in our history.

It's not hard to grasp why a nation that prides itself on an unbounded sense of security would see any breach of that belief as an invasion. But before we give ourselves over to the Pearl Harbor analogy, it's worth considering the consequences of calling a great crime an act of war.

The Day of Infamy has many uses. This retrofitted image makes it easier to believe that an axis of foreign powers stands behind the attack. It allows us to imagine the task ahead as a great global battle rather than a series of sorties whose scope is limited by geopolitical realities. It grounds flighty statements like Bush's vow to "rid the world of the evildoers." And it frames the unfathomable in an essentially optimistic context. After all, Pearl Harbor was a trauma that ended in triumph. It was the moment when America transformed itself—just as we are now being urged to do.

The myth of being born again is central to our culture, so it's no surprise that, in this time of trauma, talk of transformation is everywhere in the air. It's not just the stadium-sized chants of "U.S.A." or the flag T-shirts on kids who, just a week ago, were badass acolytes of hip-hop. It's the media's eagerness to march in the purification parade. Days before Congress got into the act, this war was declared by network logo. Pundits from left to right have proclaimed that America will never be the same. Frank Rich, the toastmaster of our irony-drenched culture, announced last week that the twin towers nightmare "has awakened us from a frivolous if not decadent . . . dream." Meanwhile, William Bennett opined on CNN that "things have been put in perspective. We are now taking acknowledgment of what's most important, and I think the lives of Americans are being changed."

This concordance of liberal and conservative thinking is the first fallout of turning a crime into war—and it probably means that issues like civil rights and sexual liberation will be put on hold. In war, the traditional relationships between races, classes, and sexes are sanctioned by necessity. The culture becomes whiter as rituals of unity replace the chaotic clash of minority styles. The status of women is drastically reduced as the public world becomes much more male. And we fall back on the most primitive icon of all: the strongman.

So far, the major beneficiary of this reflex has been Rudy Giuliani, whose authoritarian instincts now seem merely premature. The unspoken reason for the current cult of Rudy is the contrast it offers with Bush, who has never looked more shaken. Never mind that his vacant rhetoric played a large part in our anxiety. In wartime, it's not acceptable to mock the president, or to point out that someone significant is missing from this remake of Pearl Harbor: Franklin Roosevelt.

Though there have been horrific ethnic assaults over the past week, no one is seriously talking about rounding up Arab Americans—yet. Nor have Jerry Falwell's admonitions about abortionists, feminists, and homosexuals causing God to withdraw his protection from the World Trade Center caught fire. But in more subtle ways, this crisis suits the puritanical right. Tabloid chauvinists sound like the voice of the people, and even doves are drawn toward the Post's blithe exhortation: "Bombs away." Columnist John Podhoretz seems righteous rather than right-wing when he demands an end to "the cramped and whiny" debate about "your Social Security, your abortions . . . your personal freedoms." Such issues can now be made to seem frivolous, even unpatriotic. And the metaphor of war trumps concerns about the coming recession. Suddenly it seems indulgent to complain about the price of gasoline. "We may have another Greatest Generation in the making," crows Bennett, "and they may be called upon to make sacrifices."

The impulse to change our decadent ways is an atavistic response—not so different from Jerry Falwell's. But in fact, our bad attitude has nothing to do with this tragedy. Nor is sacrifice needed, as it would be in a true time of war, when the nation's resources are diverted and millions must risk their lives. It should take much less than that to protect ourselves from terrorism. Yet once we accept the Pearl Harbor analogy, we're willing to suspend our politics, our sensibility, even our freedom. Such is the power of an unexamined metaphor: It has convinced us that America will never be the same—nor should it be.


This is not to say the crisis isn't real. But precisely because it is so inchoate, so unprecedented, and so dangerous, our response must be deliberate, effective, and humane. Anything else stands a real chance of making the world—including this city—a far more dangerous place. There are plenty of films that show what hell war is, but they haven't entered the current psychic repertoire. Nor have we called on the vast literature that describes the dialectic of violence—how one bloody deed begets the next in an endless sequence of macho posturing and murder. Instead, we're wedded to a metaphor that truly belongs in the past: the image of a world war that never really scorched our soil. But we can't go back to the future. History recedes regardless of our fantasies, leaving us to deal with the uniqueness of the present.

The only way to make sense of this new reality is to banish metaphor entirely. Only then can we see things clearly. Only then can we defend ourselves from terrorists and militarists alike. Only then can we assure that America remains the same.


Research: Adrian Leung

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